Overcoming Fear - A Titanic Hero

(Homily for Second Sunday of Easter - Divine Mercy Sunday)

Bottom line: Like Fr. Byles - in Jesus we can overcome fear.

Today's readings concern overcoming fear. The first reading tells about people who see the wonders the apostles perform, but do not "dare to join them." In the reading from Revelation the sight of Jesus causes John to fall down "as though dead." But Jesus touches him, saying, "Do not be afraid." And in the Gospel the apostles keep the door locked out of fear and then experience an even greater fright: Jesus appears to them. He first words, however, are, "Peace be with you." Jesus wants to help us overcome fear.

I would like to tell you about a man who overcame fear in a remarkable way: Thomas Byles, the oldest son of a nineteenth century Congregational minister. Inspired by his father, the young man began a serious study of the Bible and early Christian writers. The more he read the more he became convinced that Jesus founded the Catholic Church. You can imagine the fear he had to overcome to tell his family he was becoming a Catholic, but not only that - God was calling him to the priesthood!

Ordained in 1902 the bishop assigned him to a rural parish in Essex, England. There he dedicated himself to youth. During Lent 1912 he told the altars servers that he would be gone for several weeks after Easter. He was going to America to do his brother's wedding. He mentioned that he was travelling on White Star Lines. One of the servers said, "Isn't that the Titanic? I hear it is so strong even God couldn't sink it."

The priest smiled and mildly scolded the boy: "Nothing is greater than God. But I am not going on the Titanic, but on the Olympic."

As things happened, his brother sent a ticket for the maiden voyage of the Titanic. He boarded as a second class passenger on Wednesday, April 10. Passenger from all classes - and a variety of nationalities - came to him for confession during the first four days. On Sunday, April 14, Fr. Byles celebrated the same Mass we have today - the Second Sunday of Easter. Speaking in French and English, he warned about "spiritual shipwreck" - that is, falling into temptation. We need the sacraments and prayer, he said, like a life belt to not drown in the turbulent sea of this life.

Close to midnight, Fr. Byles was on the deck praying his breviary when he felt a sudden jolt. Realizing something serious had happened, he went to third class to help passengers - especially the ill and mothers with small children.* They were the first placed in life boats. Fr. Byles blessed each one, making the sign of the cross on their foreheads.

He began giving general absolution and praying with those on board. Twice they offered Fr. Byles a place in a life boat. He replied that a shepherd does not abandon a flock in danger. Many survivors remembered seeing the outline of a priest in his cassock with people huddle around him. As the Titanic began tilting upward he led them in the rosary - Catholics, Protestants, Jews and non-believers all joined in the prayer.

Fr. Thomas Byles' body was never recovered from the icy Atlantic.** A remarkable man. A man who by Jesus' grace overcame fear. A man who heard Jesus' word, "Do not be afraid."

This Sunday we celebrate the Divine Mercy. It an invitation to overcome the fear that separates us from God. Yes, God is like an immense ocean - mysterious, greater than anything we can imagine. But that ocean can take our sins - no matter what you or I have done. When we turn to Christ our sins disappear like drops of water in the immense sea.

Jesus gives that assurance today. Receive the Holy Spirit - whose sins you shall forgive are forgiven them. Like Fr. Byles - in Jesus we can overcome fear. "Do not be afraid," he says, "Once I was dead, but now I live forever and ever." Amen.


*A survivor recalled: "We saw before us, coming down the passageway, with his hand uplifted, Fr. Byles. We knew him because he had visited us several times on board and celebrated Mass for us that very morning. 'Be calm, my good people,' he said, and then he went about the steerage giving absolutions and blessings." See FR. BYLES AND THE "SHIP OF DREAMS" by Mark Fellows.

**Much of the data regarding Fr. Byles, I drew from "A Titanic Hero: Thomas Byles" by Cady Crosby. This remarkable young lady put together a compelling account of the priest's life. Besides the written version, Cady recorded an audio CD of her book.

Version Castellana

From Archives (Divine Mercy Sunday Homilies):

2015: Disciples and Disciple Makers Week 2
2014: Journey to Hope Week 2
2013: Overcoming Fear - A Titanic Hero
2012: Divine Mercy in a Time of Crisis
2011: His Mercy Endures
2010: Believing Is Seeing
2009: The Eighth Day
2008: Reconciliation
2007: A Drop in the Ocean
2006: Mercy in Action
2005: The Grandeur of God
2004: God Loves Honest Skeptics
2003: The Truth Is Out There
2002: Divine Mercy
2001: Doubting The Doubts
2000: A Requisite for Faith
1999: Neither Gullible nor Rigid
1998: Be Not Afraid!
1997: Room for Doubt

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